* Obesity a top reason young adults can't join military
* Report: U.S. school kids eat 400 billion excess calories a
* Retired military leaders push stronger school food rules
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Sept 25 Former U.S military leaders
have identified a latent threat to the potential for a leaner,
more agile fighting force: the school vending machine.
In a report to be released on Tuesday, a group of 300
retired military officers said school-age children are eating
400 billion excess calories a year - the equivalent of 2 billion
candy bars - from junk food sold in such machines as well as in
snack bars and cafeterias that should be off-limits.
Those extra calories from candy, chips and sugary drinks
amount to about 130 calories a day, which over a student's
school years can lead to extra pounds.
"The calories add up," the U.S. generals and admirals said
in their report, which calls for tougher standards on the snacks
schools can sell.
"While limiting the sale of junk food is not a solution by
itself for the childhood obesity epidemic, it is part of the
solution," wrote the retired officers, who are part of a
nonprofit group called Mission: Readiness, focused on youth
Military experts have long been worried that rising obesity
is making it difficult to find fit recruits. But the report
places new pressure on government officials to revamp
nutritional guidelines for foods sold in U.S. schools.
"The folks that are going to enter the military in 2025 are
in school right now. So it's up to us to ensure that when those
children reach the age of between 17 and 24 that they are ready
or eligible to join the military," Retired Air Force Lieutenant
General Norman Seip, a member of the group, told Reuters.
The number of overweight or obese children keeps rising and
more than one third of American children and teenagers are too
heavy, government statistics show. Other data shows that such
children are also more likely to be heavier as adults.
"It's a strong reminder of the seriousness and the extent
of the obesity epidemic, showing how far reaching it is that
even the military is concerned about it," said Margo Wootan, who
oversees nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering new
standards for so-called "competitive" foods sold outside of
traditional school meals. USDA officials have said they are
still working on the new rules, which were due in December. They
have not said when the rules will be released.
Doctors, public health experts and consumer advocates want
the USDA to update limits on calories, fat and sodium in snack
foods and to restrict beverage sales to healthier options such
as naturally sweetened fruit juices and low-fat or non-fat milk.
Food and beverage manufacturers have said they support
efforts to revamp school nutrition guidelines, but they cite
lack of exercise and other issues as part of the problem.
30 POUNDS OVERWEIGHT
"Recruiting is always a challenge," said Eileen Lainez, a
Defense Department spokeswoman.
Only 25 percent of young U.S. adults qualify to enlist in
the military. Among the remaining 75 percent, more than a third
have weight-related problems, she said, adding that the military
is still meeting its recruiting goals.
It is still alarming that so many are too fat and that
future enlistees are likely to follow suit, Seip said.
"And we're not talking a couple pounds here, we're talking
about an average of 30 pounds (13.6 kg)," he said of the
overweight recruits who do not make the cut.
"The trend is not slowing down," said Seip, a who retired in
2009 after joining the U.S. Air Force about 30 years ago.
Over those three decades, the number of obese American
children has more than tripled.
Drinks sold in schools, especially sugary sodas, have been a
The beverage industry launched voluntary guidelines in 2005
to limit student access to full calorie sodas that it says is
Various studies have shown mixed results on the impact of
children's soda consumption. But last week, three published
studies offered the strongest evidence yet that sugary drinks
play a leading role in expanding U.S. waistlines.
According to Tuesday's report, some students are consuming
about 45 fewer calories a day from such beverages on average,
even though they are still widely available in many schools.
USDA data has shown students consuming about 177 extra
calories from school snacks and sugary drinks, but without such
beverages the remaining more than 130 calories a day appear
linked to junk food, it said.
Wootan said that reflects the steps a number of school
districts have taken to limit sugary drinks. "There has been
some improvement in beverages, but for snack foods there hasn't
been as much progress," she said.
As for those 2 billion hypothetical candy bars?
Their 400 billion calories would weigh more than the U.S.
Navy's longest aircraft carrier, the 70,000-ton Midway, the